Clarification of an Ambiguity in Philosophical Crumbs

One of the highlights, for me, of the recent conference on Kierkegaard at Johns Hopkins University, was meeting Jonathan Lear. Lear is a distinguished professor in the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is also a practicing psychoanalyst. I have an interest in psychoanalysis and, in fact, am a member of the Philadelphia Jung Seminar. It is a rare treat to meet such a distinguished philosopher who is interested in Kierkegaard, and a rarer one still to meet a philosopher who is a practicing psychoanalyst!

I discovered, in conversation with Lear, that he is teaching a course this fall on Kierkegaard and that he is using my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs He wrote to me recently with a question about the text to which I did not immediately have an answer. “On p. 108 of your text,” he wrote, “Climacus says, ‘(This is the untruth of paganism.)’  I don’t think I understand.  Do you have any words of wisdom on that claim?”

The question about this passage from Crumbs is a good one, so I thought I would share my answer to Lear with readers of this blog. I wasn’t sure myself what that parenthetical comment meant, so I went to the online version of the collected works of Kierkegaard in Danish to check my translation against the original text and I discovered that I had, in fact, left something out. There is a word in the original Danish that does not appear in the translation, but which really ought to be there. I don’t know how I failed to include it, but I did. Here is the Danish text followed by my translation with the missing word inserted

Enhver anden Aabenbarelse var for Kjærligheden et Bedrag, fordi den enten først maatte have foretaget en Forandring med den Lærende (men Kjærligheden forandrer ikke den Elskede, men forandrer sig selv) og skjult for ham, at dette var fornødent, eller letsindigt være forblevet uvidende om, at hele Forstaaelsen var en Skuffelse (Dette er Hedenskabets Usandhed).

Any other revelation would, for love, be a deception, because it would either first have had to undertake a transformation of the learner and hidden from him that this had been necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, rather it alters itself), or it would have had to allow him to remain blissfully [letsindigt] ignorant of the fact that the whole understanding had been an illusion. (That is the untruth of paganism.)

“Paganism,” for Kierkegaard (and I believe many of his contemporaries) is a synonym for the Greeks. Kierkegaard often speaks of the Greeks (i.e., the ancient Greeks) as “lighthearted” because they do not have a concept of sin. Sin, according to Kierkegaard/Climacus is what separates human beings from God. SIN is the difference, the main difference. But the Greeks, of course, because they did not have the concept of sin, did not understand that there was an obstacle to their coming to understand the eternal, unchanging truth. They assumed they could just think themselves into it.  They thought they could “understand” the truth, but really, according to Kierkegaard, their understanding was an illusion (“untruth”).

I think that’s what Kierkegaard means in that passage. It’s possible, I suppose, to get that meaning even without the inclusion of “letsindigt/blissfully,” but I think it is harder, so I am grateful to Lear for his question and will add the missing word to the list of corrections I’m planning to send to Oxford.


Ahasverus and Vampires

The second chapter of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) deals with the legend of Ahasverus, the “eternal Jew” in Danish, or “the wandering Jew,” in English. Ahasverus is a character who supposedly taunted Christ on the way to his Crucifixion and was condemned, as a result, to wander the earth forever. This chapter, which is more than one hundred pages long, examines the legend of Ahasverus in such detail it could legitimately be published as a monograph on the subject independently of the rest of the book.

Students of romantic literature will eat this chapter up because it is filled with references to that period of literary history. In addition to a general survey of literature on Ahasverus, there is a great deal of interesting material on the history of Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the concept of the wandering Jew. In fact, the material in this chapter could easily form the basis of a dissertation on the subject. I’ll confess, however, that I found making it through this portion of the book something of a hard slog.

One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, from my perspective, was the similarity that gradually became apparent to me between the legend of Ahasverus, and the mythical character of the vampire. I promised earlier to come with a post on Kierkegaard and vampires. Given the current popularity of vampires, cynical readers might have interpreted this as a shameless attempt to boost the popularity of my blog. I should confess that that was part of my motivation. There really is a striking similarity, however, between Ahasverus and vampires. First, both are “undead.” That is, both are condemned to live forever and, unlike so many people today who appear to think an indefinite extension of the human lifespan would be a wonderful thing, both see this as a fate much worse than death. Both are melancholy and incapable of forming close emotional relationships with ordinary human beings. Even more interesting is that, according to Tudvad, the character of Ahasverus in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab, like the vampire, casts no shadow.

The legend of Ahasverus apparently originated in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages (there is no support for it in Christian scripture). So, it appears, did the legend of the modern vampire. Both were also favorite subjects of authors during the Romantic period. Jungians have argued that the vampire actually belongs to the collection of archetypes inherent in human consciousness. The similarity of Ahasverus to the vampire suggests this figure is simply another instantiation of the same archetype.

There are so many interesting topics to be explored here: What is the historical relation between the two legends? What is the literary relationship? Are they expressions of a single archetype? If so, what does this archetype reveal to us about human nature or about the psyche? So far as I know, none of these questions has been given serious scholarly treatment even though the time is clearly ripe for such treatment.

Please forward a link to this entry to anyone whom you think would be interested in tackling one of these fascinating topics. I can’t wait to read what people are going to write!